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Sunday, May 5, 2002

Jesus, the Hero (John 3.1-17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
May 5, 2002

Text: John 3:1-17
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? 11 “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. 12 “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. 14 “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.  [NASB95]

In the early 70s, schools were being integrated in the state of Virginia.  One such school, T.C. Williams, had a championship football team.  Parents, coaches, students, and players faced the integration of their school, and football team, with fear and mistrust.  What particularly upset the apple cart was the naming of a North Carolina black coach, Herman Boone, as head coach over the successful coach of many seasons, Coach Bill Yoast.  A recent movie, "Remember the Titans," chronicles the amazing story of how Coach Boone led the team and community not only to the state championship, but also to respect and trust of one another across racial lines.

The story and the movie are marvelous!  And tucked away in this true story is a picture of what Jesus had to say to Nicodemus in today's lesson.  In fact, were Jesus here today and talking to us about being "born again," he may well have said, "If I speak to you of earthly things and you do not understand, how will you understand when I speak of heavenly things?  … Remember the Titans?

Lifted Up as Savior

To Nicodemus, Jesus said, "Remember the Bronze Serpent in the Desert?"  That event was a part of the history of Nicodemus much as the story of the Titans is for us as Americans. 
Whether out of human wisdom or divine providence, the school board in Alexandria, Virginia decided to name Herman Boone as head coach of the Titans.  Maybe they just did it for show, or maybe so that he could fail… but what they did was lift up what was feared and perceived as a threat - a black coach from North Carolina - and put him in a place where he could save a team and community from tearing each other apart.  Coach Boone was held up (even if out of impure motives) as THE head coach, with the authority to bind up or break apart a team of young athletes.

As it turned out, the team learned to trust and respect Coach Boone.  And in doing so, they learned to trust and respect each other.  What Coach Boone did for his team then spread to Assistant Coach Yoast, the student body, and eventually to the community.

In many ways, the story of Coach Boone and the Titans illustrates the reference Jesus made to the bronze serpent on the pole.  After a serious bout of complaining, mistrust, and arguing, God sent poisonous snakes to afflict the people of Israel.  In response to Moses' prayer for the people, God instructed him to put a bronze snake on a pole and lift it up.  Anyone who was bitten by a snake and looked up at the bronze snake then lived.  What happened, both with the Titans and with the Israelites, is that in looking up in trust, they were saved from their affliction.

Jesus told Nicodemus that the Son of Man would be lifted up in the same way, as a Savior to those who would look in faith and trust upon him.  And in a much deeper and permanent sense, the Son of Man - Jesus - brought salvation and life.  Coach Boone saved his team and the town from hatred and fighting.  God used the bronze snake to save his people from death and to restore faith and hope within them.  And, Jesus tells us, God sent his only Son, to save the world from condemnation and death, out of his love.

Lifted Up as Beloved

Right at the top of the list of familiar Bible passages is John 3:16.  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."  What a wonderful verse -- God sent his son because he loved us so much!  This verse and the one that follows it say that because God loved the world, he sent his Son, Jesus, to be its Savior.

God's Son, Jesus Christ, is the same "Son of Man" that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus about.  Jesus is the one who God not only sends into the world, but also lifts up that the people might believe in him and be saved.  Jesus was lifted up, literally lifted up onto the cross, not only as Savior, but also as Beloved Son of God.

John 3:16 and the verses that follow are straightforward.  God sent and lifted up Jesus so that the world might be saved from sin and death.  God did not send and lift up Jesus to condemn the world, but to save it.  God's desire - his love expressed through Jesus - is that we look upon Jesus in faith and BE SAVED.

But what about condemnation?  What about guilt and punishment and consequences?  Jesus said that it is in not believing that we are condemned already.  Not because God sent Jesus to judge us, but because our own unbelief judges us.  That's the punishment - that's the consequence of sin and unbelief.  God, in love, says, "Here's life!"  And if we turn away, we have chosen death.

There is a brief explanation of why some people choose death.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that the light has come into the world and those who do evil are prone to hate it because that light exposes their evil.  That is the paradox of trusting in Jesus.  When the Israelites looked at the bronze snake, they had to admit to their sinfulness.  When the student body cheered Coach Boone, they had to face their own prejudices and fears first.  When we believe in Jesus Christ, lifted up on the cross, we must face the sin in our life that put him there.

God's grace is that in that moment and through the lifted-up Jesus Christ, he says to us, "I know you.  I love you.  I forgive you."  Jesus is lifted up as Savior and as Beloved Son that we might be saved and named beloved children of God.

Lifted Up as Hero

Finally, Jesus is lifted up in an interesting and different way.  God lifted Jesus up as Savior and as Beloved that we might be saved and loved.  As we respond in faithfulness and obedience to be followers of Jesus, we lift him up as Hero.

Jesus concludes his conversation with Nicodemus, one who snuck to see him at night, by saying that whoever lives by the truth (that is, in obedience to God), comes into the light so it may be plainly seen that God is at work.  Two realities of being a Christian are the free gift of God's grace and forgiveness, and our thankful response of obedience and gratitude.  "Living by the truth" means being a follower of Christ, living out God's intent for our lives, and serving God in all we say and do.  That is "true" life.

And the life of truth lifts up Christ as hero - because it bears witness to the fact that it is God who saves, heals, and blesses us with life.

In football, it is often the tradition of winning teams to hoist their coach up on their shoulders and march him around the field, literally "lifting him up" for the world to see.  In that act, they are not only pointing to the coach as hero, the players are also saying, "We couldn't do this all by ourselves, and we want to honor the one who has led us here."

In love, God has lifted Jesus Christ up that we, believing, might be saved.  In gratitude, faithfulness, and obedience, we are in turn responsible for lifting up the name and person of Jesus Christ in order that the world might know just who has saved us and loved us.  We worship and share the good news of Jesus Christ because we want the world to know he is our hero and the Savior.

Lifted Up by God and Man

It is a curiosity that God has arranged the world as he has.  We could be robots, slaves, or merely decorations on a beautiful canvas of creation.  But God has made us in his image and has involved us in singing his praise.

God loves you.  If you don't know it - hear it again today and believe it.  It is the central truth of the universe. 

God has shown that love by sending his only Son to make right what is wrong in our lives.  God has lifted up his Son, Jesus, that we might face what is wrong in us, and trusting in Jesus, be saved from death into life.  If you haven't put your trust in Jesus Christ, do so today.  He is the ONLY way, the ONLY truth, and the ONLY life.

In the life-giving light of God's love, we can live in truth as God's beloved children, knowing and showing God as the source of life and love.  If you know that truth… live it, talk about it, share it, spread the word!

In doing so, you lift up Christ as Savior, Beloved, and Hero - the very salvation the world needs to know!  Amen.